On the Beat 2-15-2007

White Rose Resistance: Six leaders of the
storied White Rose resistance group in Nazi Germany were executed
by guillotine, but George Wittenstein managed to evade the Gestapo
and survived to become a Santa Barbara surgeon. (Among the six
beheaded was his friend, Sophie Scholl, 21, subject of the film
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, and the book Sophie
Scholl and the White Rose
.)

The Gestapo was hot on Wittenstein’s trail but he eluded them by
volunteering for the Italian front — from the frying pan into the
fire. There he was wounded by a U.S. strafing plane as he bicycled
home, a red cross emblazoned on his back, while the German army was
in full retreat as the war neared an end.

Wittenstein, now 87, was among a courageous group of Munich
students who risked their lives by writing and passing out leaflets
appealing to the conscience of the German people, urging them to
stand up and do something about Hitler’s tyranny, including
sabotage.

Although the White Rose group’s heroic efforts failed to spark
an anti-Hitler revolt, their acts of conscience and moral courage
are awakening interest among American youth who are calling and
visiting Wittenstein. “They are so moved,” he told me in an
interview at his Hope Ranch home. “It is my firm belief that no one
raised in the United States can fully comprehend what it is like to
live under an absolute dictatorship,” he continued, where the state
controls communications, news, the arts, literature, and all other
parts of life, and encourages neighbors and children to spy on
adults.

“I remember only too well an incident in a cinema: Someone
sitting a few rows in front of me was led away by the Gestapo.
Apparently he had made a derogatory remark to his companion about
Hitler. Whoever had overheard him must have, as a patriotic duty,
tipped off the secret police,” Wittenstein said. Although there
were about 300 small German resistance groups, for the most part
none were aware of one another. The White Rose was the only one
Wittenstein is aware of that protested the treatment of Jews. No
one in the White Rose was Jewish.

During early summer 1942, medical students Alex Schmorell and
Hans Scholl, Sophie’s brother, wrote four anti-Nazi leaflets,
copied them on a typewriter and distributed them throughout
Germany. Wittenstein edited the third and fourth issues, for which
he faced execution if caught, and undertook the dangerous mission
of taking them to Berlin by train. Also joining the group were
medical students Christoph Probst and Wilhelm Graf and philosophy
professor Kurt Huber.

The sixth and last leaflet proved fatal. On February 18, 1943,
Hans and Sophie walked into the University of Munich with a
suitcase jammed with leaflets. After placing stacks of them outside
each lecture hall, with no one around, they left the building, then
decided to return and tossed the rest from the top of the stairs. A
janitor spotted them and they were arrested.

“Within a few days, 80 people were arrested all over Germany,”
Wittenstein said. Four days later, in a show “trial” before a court
created by Hitler — greatly feared because there was little chance
of escaping the death penalty — the two Scholls and Probst were
sentenced to execution for high treason. Wittenstein took the risky
step of alerting the Scholls’ parents and taking them from the
train station to the trial to have a last chance to see their
children alive. “Long live freedom,” Hans shouted. All three
students were executed the same day.

Wittenstein, although confined to his barracks — all medical
students had been inducted in the army — managed to get out to
notify the Schmorell family and hoped to hide Alex on the
Wittenstein estate. Alex tried to escape to Switzerland but had to
turn back due to snow. “He was arrested during an air raid in
Munich, betrayed by a former girlfriend,” Wittenstein said.

A few months later, Schmorell, Graf, and Dr. Huber died via the
guillotine. “There were other groups, more arrests and executions
of people loosely connected with the White Rose,” and others were
sentenced to prison, Wittenstein said.

Meanwhile, the Gestapo had long had its eye on him. After he
offered to help smuggle a Jewish woman, whose son had been
executed, out of Germany he was grilled by the Gestapo and a
military court. This was a capital offense but Wittenstein managed
to talk his way out of it.

Wittenstein felt his only escape from the Gestapo’s grasp was to
volunteer for the front lines. In Italy he performed countless
operations on wounded soldiers. While there he sent arms back to
Munich to help another anti-Nazi group he belonged to. The group
ended up saving Munich from destruction, countering Hitler’s order
that every city must be defended to the last, Wittenstein said, and
saving lives. After finishing medical training in Germany following
the war, Wittenstein arrived in Santa Barbara in 1960 and taught at
UCLA Medical School and practiced here as a thoracic cardiovascular
surgeon.

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